Monday, September 16, 2013

I love the '90s

In so many words, the mid '90s were the Dark Ages for baseball cards.

The sport as a whole hit a snag in the earlier part of the decade. Of course, the infamous strike of 1994 left baseball in dire straits. Depending on who you ask, though, the steroid-infused boppers of the late '90s "saved" the game from oblivion.

The hobby, on the other hand, wasn't as lucky. The baseball card bubble burst after the '94 strike. What was an overproduction-era "boom" was met with a loud "bust" during the remainder of the decade.

Personally, I hear less about the mid-to-late '90s than any other era in cardboard history. Hence, the Dark Ages label.

But, at least in this instance, I'm not trying to imply that the so-called "Dark Ages" was all bad. Sure, the era had way too many brands and not enough people to buy them. Yes, some of this hobby's worst designs hail from the period.

That said, I'm going to try and sell you on the mid-to-late '90s tonight. Believe it or not, but some positives did come out of the era. And I don't think we recognize them enough.

For one thing, the late '90s did make at least one bright-eyed young kid a collector for life.


I grew up on packs of 1999 Topps. While not the best Topps set ever, it's basically the one that introduced me to this hobby.

Because of that, I'll always have a soft spot for it.

Wait a minute.

You're telling me I can have cards that were actually autographed by my favorite players? And, if I'm lucky, I can own a swatch from one of their game-used jerseys?

Count me in!

Okay, so I don't quite have that mentality anymore. I probably pick up autographs/jersey cards at a rate of around one per year these days. (At most.)

Still, when the whole memorabilia fad was still fresh, lots of people jumped on board. Myself included.

Autographed cards had been around since the earlier parts of the decade, but they hit their stride in the mid '90s. Game-worn jersey cards were famously first inserted into packs of 1997 Upper Deck.

In the late '90s, the memorabilia market was a fun place to be. The idea was an innovative one, and card companies hadn't overdone the tactic yet.

You can blame my current apathy towards autographs/jerseys on the 2000's.

In the late '90s, though, they were cool.

I have one major gripe with today's hobby.

Well, that's actually a lie. I have a few major gripes with today's hobby. But the main one is this...

No all-retired sets!

With the way the hobby is structured nowadays, I doubt we'll ever see a full return of Fan Favorites or Greats of the Game-esque brands. Yes, Panini Cooperstown is a terrific set, but one that operates without the benefit of logos.

My love for these kinds of checklists goes back to the mid-to-late '90s, back when they really hit their stride. For the most part, no major brands had done all-retired sets up to that point.

I'd argue that Fleer's SI Greats of the Game release in 1999 is arguably the greatest "legend" effort ever. Not only did it include some simply terrific cards, but it might also have paved the way for later sets. Namely, Fleer's inaugural Greats of the Game checklist the very next year.

Perhaps thanks to the dawn of major-brand all-legend sets in the late '90s, numerous others of the sort began to sprout up in the early 2000's. Topps Archives, UD Hall of Famers, all of them.

With the choice between all those retired sets, I was one happy camper back in the day.

If there's one innovation that's almost exclusively '90s, it's the world of sample cards.

They were sparse before the mid '90s. They were sparse after the mid '90s. I'm not even sure sample cards are still being made these days.

But, for whatever reason, these peaked in the latter stages of the 1990's. I've found tons of sample cards in dime boxes over the years, and about 95 percent of them come from that very period.

For an oddball nut like myself, these are some of the cards to have.

And it's pretty much all thanks to the mid '90s.

I'm not saying photography wasn't good before the '90s.

It was. I think most of us can agree on that.

However, through its photography, I think the later part of the '90s gave the collector a somewhat deeper insight into the world of a baseball player.

My coveted interview shots can be traced back to the early '80s. Still, cards like this Kenny Lofton (from 1998) were among the first to show just what a circus the media can be sometimes.

I spy four microphones, a video camera, and a swarm of reporters on this shot alone. This isn't the type of card you could find in the '80s or early '90s. Such an "outside the lines" glimpse is almost exclusively mid-to-late '90s material.

In this regard, we could most certainly use a return to the 1990's.

Have I sold you yet?

If not, that's fine. No matter what you might think of the era, though, I think the mid-to-late '90s should be appreciated for at least one thing.

It wasn't afraid to take a risk.

This, more than anything else, is something we're missing with the Topps monopoly in today's hobby. Every move seems to be so darn calculated.

I want a little risk.

Surprise me, Topps. Take a break from your safe bets like Gypsy Queen and A&G and try something new. Show me something I haven't seen before.

Show me a '95 Fleer. I've taken a lot of flack for actually enjoying such a loud and head-scratching set. In many ways, though, I think it perfectly sums up the mid '90s.

Card companies were willing to risk it. Fleer's 1994 and '96 releases are rather bland. In 1995, though, they took a risk. 

Did it work?

Probably not. Nine out of every ten collectors recommend abstaining from 1995 Fleer. I'm the ten percent who argue to the contrary.

But at least they tried. That's all I want.

In a lot of ways, the hobby could benefit from taking a page from the Dark Ages.

It couldn't hurt.

1 comment:

petethan said...

I'll give you that '95 Fleer "tried." And I'm completely with you that risk an innovation is a good thing. But, man, I gotta give 'em a failing grade. A for effort, maybe. But F for execution.

You're right about the era, though. It's a trip for me, because while you were busting packs of '99 Topps (which is hard for me to imagine doing), I was out of the game, along with 80% of collectors during this era. It's a retroactive bummer because of what you've been saying about it. I can't believe I was ignoring the hobby during the golden age of retired player sets. That kills me. I would have been ALL OVER Topps Retired. Now they're, like, a gazillion bucks per set.

(Whoops, I just rambled post-length in your comments. Sorry about that.)